Regenerative medicine is a promising and rapidly evolving field. By harnessing the power of stem cells, regenerative medicine aims to find innovative ways to rebuild and restore diseased body tissues, replace damaged cells, and ultimately reverse the course of severe chronic health conditions.
Our bodies are made up of millions of cells. Stem cells are the early building blocks for the organs and tissues in our body. They have the unique ability to self-renew (i.e., copy themselves) and to mature (i.e., differentiate) into specialized cells such as skin cells or muscle cells. Because of their renewable capacity scientists are studying how stem cells can rebuild and repair damaged and diseased tissue in the body.
In the body we find two types of stem cells. The first, embryonic stem cells, are found only in the earliest stages of a developing baby. They are pluripotent, which means they have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. Embryonic stem cells are used to build our bodies, we go from one fertilized egg to a trillion specialized cells in the body.
The second, adult (i.e., somatic) stem cells, act like a repair system in the body, replenishing tissues that need to be replaced. Scientists have found that various tissues in the body have a small pool of adult stem cells that are ready to mature into the cell found within that specific tissue or organ.
In 2007, scientists learned how to genetically reprogram adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. That is, these newly engineered cells (called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells) have the potential to mature into any cell type in the body.
This was a huge discovery, which has opened the door to several new and experimental avenues.
Scientists are very excited about the promise of stem cell therapies, and the list of scientific discoveries in regenerative medicine is growing every day. To date, most stem cell therapies remain at this experimental stage. Worldwide there are over 900 on-going clinical trials testing the safety and efficacy of stem cell treatments.
The clinical trial process is a way to prove the safety and effectiveness of a treatment before it is offered in the clinical setting. Advancing stem cell research from the lab to the clinic will take a multidisciplinary, collaborative and committed approach.
It is important to be cautious when reading about the availability of stem cell treatments. At times the media embellishes the readiness of basic scientific findings and there are clinics all over the globe offering unproven treatments. These unproven treatments may even be falsely marketed as safe and effective.
If you have questions about the availability of a stem cell therapy or wonder if there is clinical trial that is right for you or your loved one, it is best to speak with your doctor.